'It was a random thing ... like a plane crash.'


RALEIGH, N.C. - John Maxfield didn't believe what his radio was telling him. The attorney for the Wake County Sheriff's Office, sitting in a North Carolina State game operations box, figured there was some sort of mistake.

"I assumed our officers were going to get there and find something else," Maxfield said. "They'd find out it wasn't true. That stuff doesn't happen here."

Not at a football game. Not at a tailgate. Not at a place where everybody goes to escape the trivial realities of the real world. But when Wake County sheriff's deputies showed up at the fairgrounds parking lot that September Saturday, they found a murder scene.

Though published reports and witness accounts vary, what's known is this: N.C. State senior Timothy Johnson and his brother Tony allegedly got into an altercation with a pair of fellow tailgaters, Brett Harman and Kevin McCann. After leaving the scene, the Johnson brothers later returned with a gun and allegedly shot both Harman and McCann.

McCann, 23, died almost instantly. Harman, also 23, died on the way to the hospital.

Just minutes before the kickoff to the 2004 football season, and all the promise and hope that comes with it, the university slipped into a state of shock.

"It was something that nobody could believe," Maxfield said. "We've been doing security here for like 23 years. And we'd never seen anything close to that. Not with a gun."

Thursday night, on the exact same stretch of land where the murders took place, you never would have known what had happened a little more than two months earlier. The State College Football Club was holding one of the lots biggest tailgates, complete with couches, tables, a designer rug and Ludacris blasting through speakers as tall as Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato. Despite rules banning hard liquor, they drank "Go Pack Punch," a mix of everclear, diesel fuel, vodka and Hawaiian Punch.

"It's all about beer and babes," said Charles Onyx. "Just like every other night of college - only bigger."

Nearby, another group gathered around the tailgate of a black pickup while a student strummed Alan Jackson on an acoustic guitar. Fifty yards down the road from there, another set of students played beer pong.

Nobody felt awkward. Nobody said it was strange. They know what happened five games earlier, a short screen pass away, but it didn't faze them.

"It was a random thing," said sophomore technology student Joe Allgood. "Like a plane crash. And you can't run around worrying about plane crashes. It isn't something you think about."

The overriding consensus - from students all the way up to administration - is just that. The shooting was an anomaly, something the university, the sheriff's office or the Raleigh Police Department likely couldn't have prevented.

But that doesn't mean there weren't policy changes.

The week after the murders, emergency meetings were called with N.C. State's chancellor, athletics director, chief of police, campus safety, fairgrounds police as well as the state of North Carolina's agricultural commissioner. The group decided to regulate the number of cars that can park in the free fairgrounds lot to 1,200. The lot was previously open to anyone. They also closed to the lots until five hours prior to kickoff. In the past, fans would arrive the night before games, mark off spots for friends and drink the entire night. Lastly, the panel decided to limit the types of alcohol that can be consumed to beer and unfortified wine.

"It's a very sad and tragic event," said Shannon Yates, N.C. State's assistant athletics director for game operations, who was in the meetings. "But we've tried to turn a negative into a positive. That's the best way to honor those boys."

The group never talked about banning alcohol. They didn't discuss doing away with tailgating. That wouldn't have gone over well. That's because in these parts, tailgating is as big of a deal as the game itself.

Contributing to that is Carter-Finely Stadium's unique setting next to the state fairgrounds. Forget tailgating along endless aisles of personality-absent blacktop. Many of the state parking lots are like campgrounds, complete with dirt roads, pine trees and ponds.

"It's so engrained into the experience at this place," said Tom Younce, N.C. State's Chief of Police. "Even when the team struggled or had a bad day, you always had fun in the parking lot."

Tailgating is the social centerpiece of the N.C. State student calendar. More than frat parties or bar crawls, these parking lots are where everybody goes to party. Allgood and his friends walk around in self-made shirts that read, "Our drinking team has a football problem" on the front and "N.C. State beer team" on the back.

Last year, during a pregame tailgate, Allgood said they burned through nine kegs and a 180-pound pig. A DJ entertained students "for as far as the eye could see."

Before the policy changes, Allgood said the lot was often a "sea of people." If you didn't get there early, you didn't get a spot.

"People would park their trucks sideways to save spots for friends," Allgood said. "It was crazy."

The State College Football Club, a group of students completely unaffiliated with the university, is built around tailgating. It started some 15 years ago, when a group of guys pitched in to buy a couple kegs. Now it's 75 members who pay $75 in dues each year. That money goes towards the music, food and beer at each game.

"Anybody can go to bars and just hang out with their little clique of friends," said Ashley Wamplek. "But this is a way to hang out with thousands of people, in a great, relaxed setting and get away for a little while."

That's exactly what McCann and Harman had in mind that warm September night. Harman, a recent graduate of the Naval Academy, was preparing to leave for Iraq and had gathered his friends for one last get together before he left.

Instead, he and McCann were killed. And a university is doing everything it can to move on.

"There worst part is that now there's this reputation," Allgood said. "But we're not like that. Something like that will never happen here again. I guarantee it. That's not what we're all about."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com.